“English? You English? We love English! Tally ho!” It is early morning on the Giza Plateau, and the chirpy urchin on a camel is determined to sell us his entire stock of postcards, bookmarks and scarabs, along with the obligatory camel ride. The camel looks down its nose with withering contempt and groans, baring yellow teeth. Fleeing in slow motion through the ankle-deep sand, we are pursued by cries of “lovely jubbly!” This is definitely not Brighton beach.
It is our first day in Egypt, and our first skirmish with that local species which one member of our group nicknames “baksheesh boys”. These enterprising characters are the sand in the pearl of every tourist site in the country, and they can smell foreign flesh from miles away. But then that is Egypt, where everything seems to exist hand in hand with its opposite – the pyramids are right on the doorstep of smoggy Cairo, five star hotels are oases of order surrounded by chaos, the green ribbon of the Nile banks and the red desert run side by side like stripes on a galabiya.
In this often surreal looking glass world, you frequently find yourself, like the Red Queen, believing six impossible things before breakfast. Ten minutes ago we were standing beside the huge forepaws of the Sphinx, that most enigmatic of monuments built some four and a half thousand years ago.
Or maybe 40,000 years ago.
That, at least, is the startling conclusion of the man in the pith helmet and safari jacket, looking like a cross between a 19th century explorer and a slightly eccentric professor. John Anthony West, independent Egyptologist, author and tour guide extraordinaire, is leading our small group on a tour of Egypt which differs radically from the usual package deals. For West is the man who, some 25 years ago, first introduced the unsuspecting world to the idea that the Sphinx could have been built far earlier than the commonly accepted date of around 2,500 BC. His TV special, The Mystery of the Sphinx, which was hosted by Charlton Heston, won an Emmy Award and was one of the most successful documentaries ever shown.
Now, as we gaze up at the inscrutable features of the Sphinx, West explains what led him to adopt a view which has provoked predictable howls of outrage from the academic establishment. It is a situation he seems to positively relish. The arguments for and against the age of the Sphinx are complex and technical, but at times descend almost to the pantomime level of “Oh yes it is,” “Oh no it isn’t.”
West’s first intimation that the Sphinx may pre-date dynastic Egypt came from his researches into the works of the esoteric philosopher R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, who claimed that the erosion on the body of the giant monument and in its enclosure could only have been caused by rainfall. As the last substantial rainfall in Egypt was around 10,000 BC, this means that the Sphinx must date from at least that period. Schwaller believed that this was evidence for a previous civilisation much earlier than dynastic Egypt.
The Sphinx and the walls of its enclosure are far more weathered than the pyramids and other structures on the Giza Plateau, which were supposedly built at around the same time – approximately 2,500 BC. West points out that for most of this period the Sphinx has been buried up to its neck in the sand which accumulates in just a few years if not constantly swept away. If it is not considerably older than the pyramids, how did it fall into such a comparatively dilapidated state in the same time period?
West was intrigued by this idea, but needed to find hard evidence to back it up. So he approached an eminent geologist, Professor Robert Schoch, who confirmed that the type of weathering on the site was indeed caused by rainfall. This theory has now been taken up by best-selling authors such as Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock, whose espousal of a 10,500 BC dating has received massive publicity.
But West points out that this period was one of great climatic change and instability, when it seems conditions would not have been settled enough for a culture to develop to the level required for such a huge building project. So based on a number of factors, including the ancient Egyptian king lists, he believes the Sphinx could have been constructed as far back as 25,000 – 40,000 BC.
West also takes issue with the standard theory that the Sphinx represents the Pharaoh Chephren, who ruled around 2,500 BC. To support his claims, he brought in an expert forensic artist from the New York Police Department, who compared the Sphinx’s head with a known statue of Chephren, and concluded they could not be the same individual.
But the Sphinx is by no means the only anomaly at Giza. West points out that the Valley Temple in front of it is built of limestone blocks weighing some 100 tons, and some of the other structures on the plateau, such as the paving around the pyramids, weigh up to 200 tons. Even the most modern cranes today would have difficulty lifting and placing such huge loads, so how did the Egyptians, with apparently only the simplest technology, manage this huge task? The weathering pattern on the Valley Temple is similar to that on the Sphinx – evidence, West says, that it probably dates from the same extremely ancient period. Some other sites, such as the Oseirion at Abydos, show the same characteristics, and West believes these may also be relics from the distant past.
Next stop, Luxor temple, a short flight away from Cairo. We visit at dusk, when the temple is floodlit like a Hollywood set, with two gigantic colossi of Ramesses II guarding the entrance. Here West reveals some more about his approach to Egypt, which is discussed in detail in his two books: Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt and The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt: A Guide to the Sacred Places of Ancient Egypt. These are based on the Symbolist theories of Schwaller de Lubicz, who spent 15 years research in this temple, recording every aspect of it in great detail. The culmination of his work was a grand unified theory in which every aspect of Egyptian art, architecture, religion, philosophy and science formed a vast coherent doctrine, which was expressed in symbolic form. According to Schwaller, this knowledge is encoded into the temples in the form of an architectural ‘grammar’, which can be ‘read’ by those who understand the language.
But you do not have to subscribe to any theories at all to be awed by this or any other of the temples we visit. Each is a masterpiece of architecture in its own right, and each has its own powerfully distinctive atmosphere, and its fair share of mysteries.
At dawn the following day we visit the immense temple complex at Karnak, just two miles from Luxor, and originally joined to it by an avenue of sphinxes. Covering over 100 hectares, much of it is in ruins, but in its day it must have been like a small city. As we stand by the sacred lake, where the priests of old performed their ablutions, the rising sun turns the waters pink and gold, and a hawk soars past, like the solar god Horus greeting the dawn. Karnak is the site of one of the acclaimed architectural wonders of the world – its hypostyle hall, with thickly clustered columns rising high above, each elaborately carved and representing the primeval papyrus swamp of Egyptian mythology.
And so the journey continues, with each site seeming to compete to outdo the previous one. The superlatives begin to dry up as we shrivel like dates in the baking sun. In the temple of Hathor at Dendera, we see the famous zodiac on the ceiling, or rather, a replica, bizarrely blackened to resemble the original, which was removed from the site. Dendera also contains the only known depiction of Cleopatra, and she does not look much like Elizabeth Taylor.
The temple of Isis on its little island in the Nile is one of the most beautiful in Egypt, and it is also a modern miracle of sorts. The construction of the Aswan dam in the 1960s caused the water level to rise, so the temple was moved stone by stone to its new site, where you’d swear it has been happily nestling for the last two and a half thousand years. This was the last practising pagan temple in Egypt, where the old religion managed to fend off the advances of Christianity until 550 AD.
At Abu Simbel, deep in the Nubian desert, where the vast still waters of Lake Nasser were created by the construction of the dam, another masterpiece of Ancient Egypt has been saved by modern engineering. The temple of Ramesses II, its entrance guarded by four mighty colossi of the Pharaoh, was removed from its site by the Nile and reassembled further up the barren shores of the new lake. The whole edifice is held in place by a massive concrete and steel construction which is invisible from the outside. The original temple’s orientation has been preserved, so that on the anniversary of Ramesses’ birth and coronation, the rising sun penetrates into the sanctuary at the back of the temple, illuminating the gods seated there with Ramesses among them.
But Egypt is not all tombs and temples – the goddess of shopping is very much alive and eager for offerings in any currency. At Aswan we are enticed into a spice shop, exuding all the perfumes of paradise, and piled high like Aladdin’s cave with every variety of exotic substance. There are sacks full of fragrant frankincense and myrrh, an ‘incense stone’ that burns, and dark red hibiscus flowers for ‘karkaday’ tea next to brilliant blue indigo powder. I come out with a whole basketload, and spend the next few hours vainly trying to work out whether I’ve been ripped off. It’s all part of the fun.
Returning to Cairo, we witness a remarkable performance by a troop of famous Sufi dancers. These are the genuine article, as far removed from tourist boat performers as Picasso from a pavement artist. Their dancing is an act of religious devotion; their faces glow with ecstasy as they whirl their multicoloured skirts above their heads and perform virtuoso feats of choreography. The outside world ceases to exist as they carry us off on a magic carpet. Then, in another of those typically extreme Egyptian contrasts, we are ejected back into the noisy chaos of Cairo.
Back at the pyramids for the grand finale of the tour, and it’s like being extras in the cast of Aïda. The pyramids are huge black triangles against a vast operatic sunset of red, orange and peach, with a full moon hanging overhead. Here West sets about demolishing the accepted theory that the pyramids were built as tombs for the Pharaohs. He points out that, unlike in genuine tombs, no coffins or mummies have been found in any of the eight ‘great’ pyramids of the 4th dynasty. The interiors are devoid of inscriptions or artwork and in any case there would be more than one tomb per Pharaoh. Speculation on the precise geodetic orientation of the pyramids, their astronomical alignments and their many other anomalies have filled libraries full of books, yet their true significance, like much else in Egypt, remains as elusive as ever.
Bent double, we clamber 130 feet up the low ascending passageway of the Great Pyramid into the cathedral-like space of the Grand Gallery, then into the King’s Chamber, starkly bare apart from its granite sarcophagus at the far end.
Then, as planned, the lights go out, and we are plunged into absolute dark, so thick you cannot tell whether your eyes are open or shut. Like being in a flotation tank, it is a surreal experience in which strange images begin to arise in the mind, and you lose all sense of time and space. The illusion is only slightly dispelled by the gentle snoring of those who found the steep climb too much. Then the lights flare on again, and there is only just time for a precipitous descent right down to the subterranean chamber at the very bottom of the pyramid. With its jumble of half-demolished walls, it is quite different from the upper chambers, and looks more like a relic from prehistoric Europe.
Thus finishes the last chapter of this extraordinary journey. Egypt, with its mixture of the sublime and the bizarre, and its constant ability to astound, reaches parts of you that other holiday spots cannot. In the words of a previous visitor, Florence Nightingale, “One wonders that people come back from Egypt, and live lives as they did before.”
John Anthony West’s tours are run from the USA, but can easily be joined from the UK. For details, contact Magical Egypt Tours, 4 Second Street, Athens, NY 12015, tel. (001) 518 945 2160 or see his website at www.members.aol.com/jawsphinx